The billionaire sulk

When Chelsea eked out a meagre 1-0 win against Portsmouth at Stamford Bridge, Roman Abramovich was said to be displeased with his multi-million pound team’s flaccid display, writes Brian Glanville.

Symbolic, symptomatic, call it what you will, but when Aston Villa’a second goal went in that Sunday afternoon at Villa Park, Chelsea’s owner, Roman Abramovich, as seen all to plainly on television, left his seat, turned his back on the pitch and left the director’s box like a sulky child. True he later is reported to have fraternised with the opposing directors, even to have gone down to the Chelsea dressing room, but the gesture and its significance now were plain.

The previous weekend, when I myself saw Chelsea at Stamford Bridge eke out a meagre 1-0 win against Portsmouth, who so nearly equalised, with a late header, Abramovich was said to be similarly displeased with his multi-million pound team’s flaccid display. As well he might have been. Still, at least they did score a goal, whereas at Villa, to their shame, they failed to get a single shot on target. Not Drogba, not Malouda, not Wright-Phillips; though admittedly they were missing Frank Lampard, who had scored against Portsmouth.

‘Schadenfreude’ is the German word which means delight in others’ misfortunes and it is surely appropriate here. I am delighted when Chelsea slip up because thanks to Abramovich’s bottomless billions, they’ve been able to utterly distort the balance of English football. One of Russia’s so called oligarchs, he took over a club with a £90 million debt, which still trades at a massive loss, but subsidised it with his own enormous fortune. And the very weekend when Chelsea lost at Villa, they were thwarted at the last gasp in their attempt to pay a colossal, record fee to bring Ronaldinho from Barcelona to London. It will, we are told, happen in a year’s time, but who knows how things will be by then?

Abramovich has no deep knowledge of football but alas he knows what he wants and a year ago he wanted Michael Ballack and Andriy Shevchenko. He got them both, reportedly over the head of his flamboyant Portuguese manager, Jose Mourinho, each on a hyperbolic salary of £135,000 a year, though at least Ballack, Germany’s captain and star midfielder, did come on a free transfer. Yet both of them flopped and failed. Shevchenko, so prolific up front with Dynamo Kiev and Milan, fired little but blanks. Ballack, when he did play, and he is now out of action and omitted from the club’s Champions League roster, largely looked semi-detached. But Mourinho was obliged to try to accommodate them, somehow.

The very day Chelsea were going down in Birmingham, Arsenal, though down to 10 men for much of the game, were defeating Portsmouth 3-1 at the Emirates Stadium, and digging themselves in high up in the Premiership. This, hard on the heels of the news that David Dein, their former vice-chairman and main motivating force, had sold his 14% of shares in the club for a cool £75 million to an Uzbek entrepreneur called Alisher Usmanov; a man of somewhat daunting demeanour, said to be worth £3 billion. Under Soviet rule he was once gaoled but insists it was on trumped up political grounds, but it is hardly encouraging to learn that, like Abramovich, he has close relations with Putin and, more alarmingly, with the notoriously brutal dictator of Uzbekistan, Islom Karimov. “I am not a crook,” he insists, but you do tend to wonder if for all his hugely profitable shares deal, Dein may be going for a ride on a tiger.

Dein, you may recall, was dealt out of the game at Highbury by his fellow directors — with whom he had already quarrelled over the siting of the vast new stadium at nearby Ashburton Grove — when he wanted to bring in an American billionaire called Stan Kroenke, who now owns a sizeable chunk of shares in the club, but has fallen out with Dein, who insist that the Gunners will desperately need more money to compete with the handful of other leading clubs.

Arsene Wenger, whom Dein brought to the club, is still a friend of his, but is said to be unhappy with his recent antics. He had interesting things to say after the Gunners, that significant Sunday, had beaten Portsmouth. “I think I have a good team,” one heard Wenger say, “and I have enough quality to fight for the Championship, because I studied these players, I believe in these players. Money can always be enough or never enough. When you have a hundred and your opponent has 200, you want 200. At the end of the day, I believe football is great, because everybody can have a chance of building a team with his own philosophy.” The previous day he had brought off, on the eve of the August transfer closure, what looks like a clever coup in signing from Chelsea the energetic young French international, Diarra, for a fraction of what their London rivals paid for him.

Dein’s desire quite plainly is to force his way back into control of Arsenal; though he has sold those shares, which as we know initially cost him a paltry £292,000 — when Arsenal’s chairman, Peter Hill Wood, erroneously called it “dead money” since he is leading Usmanov’s company, Red and White Holdings. Having built the Emirates Stadium, the Gunners are deeply in debt, and sold Thierry Henry to Barcelona in the summer, but they seem to be able to find sufficient money to buy useful, if less expensive, players when they need to: and in Cesc Fabregas, still only 20, who didn’t cost them a penny when they filched him from Barcelona, they have one of the Premiership’s salient stars.

Meanwhile, there has been something of a rapprochement with Stan Kroenke, after Hill Wood — essentially a figure head, despite his family’s historic connection with Arsenal — had initially snubbed and derided him. The key figure is that of the ex-diamond dealer Danny Fiszman, now domiciled in Geneva, who owns 24.1% of the shares. Will he sell next April, when he’s free to do so?